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‘Owl Sense’ by Miriam Darlington ****

Esteemed nature writer Robert Macfarlane calls Miriam Darlington’s Owl Sense ‘a beautiful book; wise and sharp-eared as its subject.’  Darlington, who has a PhD in Nature Writing and teaches Creative Writing at Plymouth University, has honed in on the owl as her focus in this part-memoir, part-historical musing, and part-nature book.

9781783350742The book’s blurb sets out our fascination with the often elusive creatures, who have roamed the earth for over 60 million years: ‘Owls have captivated the human imagination for millennia.  We have fixated on this night hunter as predator, messenger, emblem of wisdom or portent of doom.’  Here, Darlington ‘sets out to tell a new story’, by going on ‘wild encounters’ throughout the British Isles, actively looking for different native owl species.  In her prologue, she further explores this enchantment which owls have had upon humans; they have ‘been part of our landscape, psychological context and emotional ecology from the moment Homo sapiens became self-aware.’  She then sets out the differing ways in which owls have been viewed in different cultures and historical periods, from the ‘guardianship of the underworld’ in Egyptian, Celtic, and Hindu cultures, to the wisdom and courage imbued upon the owl by the Ancient Greeks.

Darlington takes the decision to extend her project, seeking to ‘identify every European species of this charismatic’ bird, and travelling to Spain, France, Serbia, and Finland to see them in the wild.  In order to undertake her research, Darlington set out to ‘scour the twilit woods, fields and valleys of my home archipelago and then reach further afield, learning about the ecology and conservation of these night-roaming raptors, about their presence as well as their absence.  What was their place in our ecosystem; how and why have we made them into stories, given them meanings, wrapped them with all the folklore and superstition that we could muster?’

Early on, Darlington explains her reasoning for this particular project, writing: ‘So what can a writer do, faced with a world whose wildness appears to be unravelling?…  This is the story of my journey to explore those ecological details, paying attention to the incremental shift owls have experienced, and still are experiencing, from wildness to a kind of enforced domesticity.  I wanted to immerse myself in their world, from the wild owls to the captives that are kept in aviaries and sanctuaries and beyond, to look into the mythology, kinship, otherness and mystery that wild owls offer.’

Woven in with her research about owls, and the adventures which she goes on, is the fact that her autistic teenage son, Benji, ‘succumbs to a mysterious and disabling illness.’  In the book’s prologue, she reflects on her decision to continue with her project: ‘If I had known my year of owls was to be so difficult I might have faltered.  The illness stretched out into one, then two, then three years.  Benji did not get better.  Alongside the fears and challenges my owl research slowed and expanded.’  However, she does recognise a real positive of still continuing her research, despite her son’s predicament: ‘… far from distracting me from my family and my roots, my journeys deepened my sense of home and my ability to listen to what was near.’

Darlington opens Owl Sense by describing an encounter which she has with a young Great Grey Owl in Devon, whose handler has taken her to a public place to ensure that she gets used to people.  When she touches the owl, Darlington writes: ‘Her softness took my breath away.  Deadly beauty.  She turned her face towards me and I noticed its astounding circumference.  There is a narrow area that falls between pleasing and preposterous, I thought, and this owl’s circular face and bright yellow eyes fitted into it with perfect grace.’

I very much enjoyed the way in which Darlington sets out her memoir.  Its structure is simple; eight different sections correspond to eight species of owl: Barn, Tawny, Little, Long-eared, Short-eared, Eurasian Eagle, Pygmy, and Snowy.  These chapters are both separate and interconnected, and allow her to weave in her own journeys across the continent.  Her fixation upon these species allows her to take part in some fascinating, and important, research: she works on a barn owl population survey in Devon; finds fledged Tawny owlets close to her friend’s secluded house; travels on an ecological trip to Serbia, the best place in the world to see Long-eared owls; and spots the smallest owl in the world, the Pygmy, in southeastern France, with a highly enthusiastic guide.

As well as the efforts which are being made to help different owl species around Europe, Darlington also draws attention to the problems which they face in the wild, from the wide use of rodenticide which poisons the owls’ food supply, and then the owls themselves, to the loss of habitat.

Owl Sense is as deeply personal as it is a wider treatise on why owls are so important, and the ways that we can protect them.  I found Darlington’s authorial voice to be warm, honest, and filled with moments of beauty.  Her prose is so informative, but suffused with a light and engaging touch.  She notices the tiniest things, and draws our attention to their importance accordingly; for instance, the power which she weaves into a description of the calls of barn owls near her home: ‘… a screech, then a reply, as if they were throwing lightning bolts to one another, as if each was catching the other’s cry in its craw and lobbing it back.’

Reading about Darlington’s devotion to such a magnificent creature was a real treat, and I am very much looking forward to picking up her earlier work about otters as soon as I possibly can.  Owl Sense is a lovely, and thought-provoking book, which is sure to appeal to any lover of nature writing.  I did find some of the comparisons which Darlington drew between the owls and her own family a little cheesy, but for me, this was the only downside, and I thoroughly enjoyed the rest.

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‘Lab Girl’ by Hope Jahren ***

My interest in Lab Girl: A Story of Trees, Science and Love piqued when I seemed to see it everywhere at the start of the year.  I am currently on a huge non-fiction kick, and am really getting into nature writing of late too, more reasons which pushed me to borrow Hope Jahren’s memoir from my local library.  Lab Girl, states its blurb, is ‘a book about work and about love, and the mountains that can be moved when those two things come together.’  It is described as a memoir at once ‘visceral, intimate, gloriously candid and sometimes extremely funny’.

9780349006208Lab Girl has been split into three separate sections – ‘Roots and Leaves’, ‘Wood and Knots’, and ‘Flowers and Fruit’ – which are sandwiched by a prologue and epilogue.  In the rather brief prologue, Jahren asserts: ‘Plant numbers are staggering: there are eighty billion trees just within the protest forests of the Western United States.  The ratio of trees to people in America is well over two hundred.  As a rule, people live among plants but they don’t really see them.  Since I’ve discovered these numbers, I can see little else.’

In ‘Roots and Leaves’, Jahren begins her discussion proper by letting her readers know that she grew up in her father’s physics laboratory, ‘nestled within a community college in rural Minnesota’, where he taught for over forty years.  She then goes on to set out a concise family history, which she admits she knows little about.  Her great-grandparents travelled to Minnesota from Norway, as part of a mass-immigration that began in the 1880s: ‘The vast emotional distances between the individual members of a Scandinavian family are forged early and reinforced daily.  Can you imagine growing up in a culture where you can never ask anyone anything about themselves?  Where “How are you?” is considered a personal question that one is not obligated to answer?’

As the youngest of four children, she barely noticed when her three considerably older brothers moved away, as they often went days without speaking to one another.  As a child, Jahren recognised an absence in her life, but cannot quite articulate what it is, or why it exists: ‘Back at home, while my mother and I gardened and read together, I vaguely sensed that there was something we weren’t doing, something affectionate that normal mothers and daughters naturally do, but I couldn’t figure out what it was, and I suppose she couldn’t either.  We probably do love each other, each in our own stubborn way, but I’m not entirely sure, probably because we have never openly talked about it.  Being mother and daughter has always felt like an experiment that we just can’t get right.’

When she moved away to University, Jahren chose to study science, ‘because it gave me what I needed – a home as defined in the most literal sense: a safe place to be.’  She talks with love about the numerous labs which she has personally created over the years, and discusses at length the ways in which she prefers them to be run: ‘In my lab, whatever I need is greatly outbalanced by what I have.  The drawers are packed full with items that might come in handy.  Every object in my lab – no matter how small or misshapen – exists for a reason, even if its purpose has not yet been found.’  She also notes the challenges which have befallen her during her career: the struggles for applying for a government grant to enable her to hire staff, buy equipment, and go on research trips, and the lack of money which the US assigns to ‘curiosity-driven research’.

Chapters which focus on her personal memories, and what her life as a scientist entails, are interspersed with shorter chapters regarding trees, seeds, and facts about the natural world.  I found these pieces on the musings of the power of nature lovely in their approach, and came to prefer them far more to Jahren’s personal story.  I must admit that I did find some of the conclusions which she drew between nature and her own life a little preachy, and too sentimental, however; for instance, when she writes: ‘Each beginning is the end of a waiting.  We are each given exactly one chance to be.  Each of us is both impossible and inevitable.  Every replete tree was first a seed that waited.’  I tended to find certain parts of her writing a little jarring, and others patronising in their tone.  It is as though, at times, Jahren forgets her target audience, and starts writing to young children about what their lives could hold if they just take care of themselves.  In this manner, and in others, Lab Girl was not quite what I was expecting.

Lab Girl seemed to be randomly pieced together in places.  There were also elements which were not fully explained.  In a couple of instances, Jahren would mention a particular field trip which she took students on following the completion of her PhD, in which she assumed that the reader already had knowledge of the participants when they had not previously even been referred to.  I found this lack of explanation a little confusing, and it could have been so easily remedied.  The narrative arc is also only loosely chronological at times, so I had the sense that the book jumps around too much.

Whilst I feel as though I have learnt a lot with regard to the scientific data and facts which make up the interim chapters, I found that Jahren’s narrative voice became rather grating quite quickly.  Whilst it is well written, there were certainly repetitions which I felt could have been cut to benefit the book, and there were other points at which it felt as though Jahren was trying too hard to write flowing, poetic prose.  I did not personally find this a humorous read; whilst quips and asides have been inserted, Jahren and myself clearly have a very different sense of humour.

There was not the consistency within Lab Girl which I would have liked, and with regard to the reviews which I have seen of the book, I expected to like it far more than I did.  I gave Lab Girl a three-star rating because I so enjoyed the pieces about nature.  Had this been a straightforward memoir which omitted the natural world, however, I doubt I would have been so generous.

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‘Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race’ by Reni Eddo-Lodge *****

In 2014, Reni Eddo-Lodge published a blog post, in which she discussed her ‘frustration with the way that discussion of race and racism in Britain were being led by those who weren’t affected by it.’  This post spiralled into her much-lauded work of non-fiction, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race.  Here, she explores a wide range of issues surrounding race, which rage from ‘eradicated black history to the political purpose of white dominance.’  Published in 2017, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race also won the Jhalak Prize, a yearly book award for writers of colour.

9781408870587In her book, Eddo-Lodge ‘offers a timely and essential new framework for how to see, acknowledge and counter racism. It is a searing, illuminating, absolutely necessary exploration of what it is to be a person of colour in Britain today.’ Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race has been split into seven different sections, entitled with such headings as ‘Fear of a Black Planet’, ‘The Feminism Question’, and ‘There’s No Justice, Just Us’.  In the place of an afterword, there is a short piece called ‘Aftermath’.

In her original blog post, which she discusses in the preface, Eddo-Lodge wrote: ‘I’m no longer engaging with white people on the topic of race.  Not all white people, just the vast majority who refuse to accept the legitimacy of structural racism and its symptoms.  I can no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates their experience.’  She went on to say: ‘I can no longer have this conversation because we’re often coming at it from completely different places.  I can’t have a conversation with them about the details of a problem if they don’t even recognise that the problem exists.’

When she reviewed the comments which her post had accumulated, Eddo-Lodge reflects: ‘There seemed to be a misunderstanding of who this piece of writing was for.  It was never written with the intention of prompting guilt in white people, or to provoke any kind of epiphany.  I didn’t know at the time that I had inadvertently written a break-up letter to whiteness.’  She decided to convert her post into the form of a book ‘paradoxically – to continue the conversation…  This book is the product of five years of agitation, frustration, exhausting explanations, and paragraph-long Facebook comments.  It’s about not just the explicit side, but the slippery side of racism – the bits that are hard to define, and the bits that make you doubt yourself.’  Eddo-Lodge further justifies her need to write the book, saying ‘I am only acutely aware of race because I’ve been rigorously marked out as different by the world I know for as long as I can remember.’

Eddo-Lodge begins the first section of her book by discussing the point at which she began to think about black British history.  A University module about the transatlantic slave trade caused her to muse deeply upon notions of racism and power: ‘Thinking about power made me realise that racism was about so much more than personal prejudice.  It was about being in the position to negatively affect other people’s life chances.’  At this point, her outlook started to change substantially.  The chapter outlines slavery and its impacts within the British Isles, and the often atrocious ways in which soldiers from the colonial empire were treated.  Eddo-Lodge then goes on, with meticulous research, to examine specific examples of recorded racism within Britain; in Cardiff in 1919, following the end of the First World War, for instance, ‘… in violent protest at the audacity of interracial relationships, another angry crowd of white people set upon a lone white woman, who was known to have married an African man.  They stripped her naked.’  Such unprovoked and shocking scenes weave their way through Eddo-Lodge’s work, and through history; she mentions, for instance, that recorded hate crimes have soared in recent years: ‘In the same year that I decided to no longer talk to white people about race, the British Social Attitudes survey saw a significant increase in the number of people who were happy to admit to their own racism.’

Throughout, Eddo-Lodge interviews various people, who provide contributions to, or launching pads for, the wider conversation.  She asks pressing, sometimes heartbreaking questions about her own place in Britain, and why some wish to take the security which she has as a British citizen from her: ‘What history had I inherited that left me an alien in my place of birth?’.  She is an incredibly intelligent author, giving measured responses to an awful lot of issues.  One part of the book which I found particularly interesting was when Eddo-Lodge writes about how the language which we use can serve to either silence or empower, and the wealth of different perspectives which can be applied to particular situations.

I found Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race difficult to read at times.  This was not because of Eddo-Lodge’s prose style, which I found informative, illuminating, and well-balanced, but due to the book’s content.  The discrimination in society, and the structural racism which she outlines in Britain, both made me feel incredibly uncomfortable, and so aware. Eddo-Lodge uses her platform to discuss a wealth of issues – Black History Month, riots, the British eugenics movement which was popular at the outset of the twentieth century, the (often negative) language used to describe different racial groups, white nationalism, and the lack of black representation in British politics, amongst others.

There is a sense of hope here; Eddo-Lodge offers suggestions for ways in which we can change the system: ‘In order to dismantle the unjust, racist structures, we must see race.  We must see who benefits from their race, who is disproportionately impacted by negative stereotypes about their race, and to who power and privilege is bestowed upon – earned or not – because of their race, their class, and their gender.  Seeing race is essential to changing the system.’

Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is both public and deeply personal in its concerns and experiences.  Whilst Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race is specifically about Britain, there is so much to take away which has the ability to have a global impact.  I found the book thought-provoking and eye-opening in equal measure, and believe that it should be read by everyone.  It feels particularly poignant to pick up now, given the current political climate in the United Kingdom, in which so many people are still persecuted due to the colour of their skin, or their sexuality.

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‘This Really Isn’t About You’ by Jean Hannah Edelstein ****

Olivia Laing calls Jean Hannah Edelstein, author of the memoir, This Really Isn’t About You, ‘one of the most brilliant writers of her generation.’  This, her second book, revolves around her father’s death from cancer, and discovering six months afterwards that she had inherited the gene for Lynch syndrome, which causes many different kinds of cancer to form.

9781509863785Edelstein, who was thirty-two at the time, moved back to the United States in 2014, when she was told her father was dying from lung cancer.  Up until this point, she had spent her entire adult life abroad, and was settled in London, where she worked as a freelance journalist, supplementing her passion for writing with temporary office jobs.  Six weeks after she arrives back at home, and almost simultaneous to her renting an apartment in New York City, her father passes away: ‘I was in Brooklyn looking for love on OKCupid when my father died.’

She goes on to reveal: ‘That night in February, I had a rare feeling of contentment, or something like it…  I was beginning to feel like it might be time to build my real life in America…  Maybe my life was almost under control.’  She reflects here on her father’s death in the family home in Baltimore: ‘My father tried to eat dinner, and then he told my mother that he was really not feeling well, and then he stood up from the easy chair where he had been spending most of his days for the last few weeks, and then he collapsed and died on the wooden floor in the space between the dining area and the family room.’

Edelstein begins her memoir by writing about her family history; she does this with humour and love.  She discusses, in part, her Jewish father’s relationship with his faith: ‘As far as I know, the ways in which my father was Jewish were mostly food ways: he ate briny fish and cold beet soup from jars.  Pumpernickel bagels, grainy dark breads.  My father drank little alcohol – Jews don’t really drink, he’d say, which was maybe less of a fact than a rumour – and he avoided pork products.  When pressed, he claimed it was less a fear of God than a fear of trichinosis.’  Amongst other elements, she talks of summer holidays spent with her Scottish grandmother in rainy Dumfries, moving to London for graduate school, and falling in and out of love.

Finding out that she had the gene for Lynch syndrome was, as one would expect, difficult to come to terms with. Her siblings and cousin, when they were tested, were found to be clear of the gene.  Edelstein is convinced, however, from the moment at which her father suggests that she goes to see her doctor, that she carries it: ‘… I had decided not to get tested while Dad was alive.  I couldn’t imagine telling him that I had the thing that was killing him.’  She goes on to explain: ‘My father had been dead for six months before I was brave enough to go and get the test.  I was no longer in a state of deepest grief.  I didn’t cry every day any more.  Just some of them.’

Lynch syndrome is a gene mutation, which around 1 in 400 people carry: ‘It’s found in all kinds of people, but in particular it’s found in people who can trace their origins to certain “founder populations”.  Folks who built families with people like them.  People from Finland.  People from Iceland.  French-Canadians.  The Amish.  Ashkenazi Jews.’   Following her own diagnosis, Edelstein was forced to confront some incredibly tough questions about both her present and her future: ‘How do we cope with grief?  How does living change when we realize we’re not invincible?’

This Really Isn’t About You has been variously described as heartbreaking, filled with hope, and ‘disarmingly funny’.  I found it to be all of these things; it is a rich memoir, full and quite revealing at times.  I enjoyed her brand of humour, which tends to be quite dry and sarcastic.  Edelstein’s authorial voice is consistently warm and candid, and a real pleasure to read, despite the more difficult scenes which she has described.  Her writing feels like a cathartic exercise; she has to come to terms with so much, and is open about it all to her audience.  Edelstein’s tone, and her intelligent and measured prose, coupled with the substance of the memoir, makes This Really Isn’t About You both an easy, and very difficult, book to read.

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‘The Stranger in the Woods’ by Michael Finkel ****

I was so intrigued by Michael Finkel’s The Stranger in the Woods, which tells the ‘extraordinary story of the last true hermit’.  This non-fiction book has been praised highly.  Sebastian Junger calls it ‘breathtaking’, and The Wall Street Journal nicely sums the book up, saying that it is a ‘meditation on solitude, wildness and survival’.  Published in 2017, The Stranger in the Woods is Finkel’s second book.

9781471152115The book focuses upon Christopher Knight, who, in 1986, and at the age of twenty, decided to leave his home in Maine.  He drove into the woods, and then disappeared.  Consequently, ‘he would not speak to another living soul for three decades.  Until, that is, he became hunted.’  Knight stayed in a single camp in the woods, not far from his home, surviving ‘by his wits and courage, developing ingenious ways to scavenge food and survive the harshest of winters.  In the process, he unsettled a community – myths abounded among the locals eager to find this legendary hermit.’

The Stranger in the Woods opens with Finkel setting the scene.  He writes: ‘The trees are mostly skinny where the hermit lives, but they’re tangled over giant boulders with deadfall everywhere like pick-up sticks.  There are no trails.  Navigation, for nearly everyone, is a thrashing, branch-snapping ordeal, and at dark the place seems impenetrable.’  For Knight, however, who only leaves his camp at midnight, his home is easy to get around: ‘He threads through the forest with precision and grace, twisting, striding, hardly a twig broken.  On the ground there are still mounds of snow, sun-cupped and dirty, and slicks of mud – springtime, central Maine – but he avoids all of it.  He bounds from rock to root to rock without a footprint left behind.’  Knight is, from the first, fearful of being discovered by those who live in the nearby town, and likes to leave not a trace of himself behind.

Following Knight’s disappearance, he becomes aware of only what is important to his new existence.  ‘He is,’ writes Finkel, ‘unaware of the year, even the decade, and does not know the proper names of places.  He’s stripped the world to his essentials, and proper names are not essential.  He knows the season, intimately, its every gradation…  He knows the moon, a sliver less than half tonight, waning.  Typically, he’d await the new moon – darker is better – but his hunger had become critical.’  Knight becomes as self-reliant as he can, and as his situation necessitates, but he can get the things he needs only by stealing them from local residents.  However, his string of thefts come with a set of moral values: ‘… if it looks valuable, the hermit will not steal it.’

Knight, who soon becomes both fascinating to, and feared by, the people targeted by his thefts, is not what anyone expected him to be.  When he is caught in the act of stealing food from a local summer camp, in April 2013, Finkel describes the way in which: ‘There’s no dirt on him anywhere, and little more than a shading of stubble on his chin.  He has no noticeable body odor.  His thinning hair, mostly covered by his wool cap, is neatly cropped.  His skin is strangely pale, with several scabs on his wrists.  He’s a little over six feet tall and broad-shouldered, maybe one hundred and eighty pounds.’  When asked about his life by local police, Knight responded that he spent the entire winter in a nylon tent, ‘and did not once in all those winters light a fire.  Smoke might give his campsite away.  Each autumn, he says, he stockpiled food at his camp, then didn’t leave for five or six months, until the snow had melted enough for him to walk through the forest without leaving prints.’  He also says that he spent no money whatsoever during his time in the woods.

During his time as a hermit, Knight became sensationalised, almost a mythical creature, and any mention of him used to terrify local children.  Finkel notes that ‘Because of the types of articles that were stolen, one family called him the Mountain Man, but that frightened their children, so they changed it to the Hungry Man.  Most people, including the police, began referring to the intruder simply as the hermit, or the North Pond hermit, or, more formally, the hermit of North Pond.  Some police reports mentioned “the legend of the hermit,” and on others, where a suspect’s full name was requested, he was recorded as Hermit Hermit.’  The local community, almost from the first, became wary and fearful: ‘He seemed to haunt the forest.  Families returned from a quiet trip into town wondering if they were going to encounter a burglar.  They feared he was waiting in the woods, watching…  Every walk to the woodpile provoked a goose-bumpy feeling that someone was lurking behind a tree.  All the normal night sounds became the noise of an intruder.’

Interestingly, Knight was never reported as a missing person, and had no contact with his family from the point of his disappearance.  Upon his discovery, he was completely unaware of what he looked like, had learnt to shave without using a mirror, and had only spoken one word – ‘Hi’ – in twenty-seven years, when he met a hiker in the woods.  He had no physical contact with anyone during his period in hiding.  Following his arrest, Knight became known all over the world, and many were fascinated by his story.  Five different songs were written about him, a local deli created a sandwich known as “the Hermit”, someone offered him land to live on rent-free, and a woman even proposed marriage.  The fact that he refused to speak about himself, or his time in the woods, in public, only intensified the longing of others to know about him.

The Stranger in the Woods is well paced, and is made up of a series of short chapters.  Finkel’s narrative style is easy to read; he has a quite informative and almost poetic prose style, which still manages to be chatty and informal.  He writes throughout of his experience in first writing to, and then meeting, Knight in prison, and detailing his story down.  He comes across as a sympathetic biographer, someone who largely leaves judgement out of his account.  The Stranger in the Woods is a fascinating book, which has made me consider further loneliness and isolation, and how impossible it must be to live alone in such a way as Knight did without disturbing the peace.

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One From the Archive: ‘The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte’ by Daphne du Maurier ****

When my copy of Daphne du Maurier’s The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte arrived, I was pleased to note that it had originally been purchased from the Howarth Bronte shop and still bore a sticker proclaiming this in its bottom right hand corner. Of the du Mauriers which I had planned to read during my du Maurier December project, The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte was one of those which I was most intrigued by. Before beginning to read, I knew a little about Branwell Bronte, but only in the context of his sisters.  I was therefore so interested to learn what he was like as an entirely separate being.

In her introduction, du Maurier sets out her reasons for producing a biography of a figure who was largely overshadowed by the fame of his three surviving sisters, Charlotte, Emily and Anne: ‘One day the definitive biography of this tragic young man will be published.  Meanwhile, many years of interest in the subject, and much reading, have prompted the present writer to attempt a study of his life and work which may serve as an introduction to both’. 9781844080755

Branwell and his sisters spring to life immediately.  Their sad beginning – their mother dying when Branwell was tiny, and the consequent deaths of the eldest two Bronte sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, in 1825 – caused the four remaining siblings to mould themselves into an impenetrable group.  From the very beginning, du Maurier states that Charlotte, Emily and Anne were all greatly inspired
by their brother, particularly during their early childhood: ‘None of these novels [Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall] would have come into being had not their creators lived, during childhood, in this fantasy world, which was largely inspired and directed by their only brother, Patrick Branwell Bronte’.  She goes on to say that in their childhood, the four children wrote tiny books together in ‘a blend of Yorkshire, Greek and Latin which could only be spoken among the four of them, to the mystification of their elders’.  Branwell certainly comes across as an inventive child: ‘Imitative as a monkey, the boy was speaking in brogue on a Monday, broad Yorkshire on a Tuesday and back to the west country on the Wednesday’, and it is clear that du Maurier holds compassion for him.

Du Maurier discusses Branwell’s work throughout, often relating his creative output to the things which he was experiencing in life: ‘Although, on examination, Branwell’s manuscripts show that he did not possess the amazing talent of his famous sisters, they prove him to have had a boyhood and youth of almost incredibly productivity, so spending himself in the process of describing the lives and loves of his imaginary characters that invention was exhausted by the time he was twenty-one’.  His poetry particularly is often vivid:

“Backward I look upon my life,
And see one waste of storm and strife,
One wrack of sorrows, hopes and pain,
Vanishing to arise again!
That life has moved through evening, where
Continual shadows veiled my sphere;
From youth’s horizon upward rolled
To life’s meridian, dark and cold.”

The secondary materials included – a large bibliography, notes, sources, and a list of Branwell’s manuscripts – are extensive, and it is clear that du Maurier did an awful lot of research on and around her subject before putting pen to paper.  The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte includes quotes from Branwell’s letters, as well as his own prose.  Secondary documents of Charlotte’s have been taken into account, particularly when discussing Branwell’s illness and death.  Instances of literary criticism from a handful of different sources are also present.  Du Maurier marvellously weaves in the social history of the period – the death of kings and queens, for example.

Branwell’s painting of Charlotte, Emily and Anne

Whilst he is not always likeable, Branwell is an incredibly interesting subject for a biography, particularly for an author such as du Maurier to tackle.  She has demonstrated the many sides of his character, some of which were reserved particularly for certain people.  Du Maurier does continually talk of Charlotte, Emily and Anne, particularly during their childhoods, but one expects that it would be hard to write such a biography without taking them into account so often.  She does continually assert the place of Branwell in the Bronte family, however, and admirably, he is always her main focus.

Of the portrait of the Bronte sisters shown, du Maurier writes: ‘Close inspection of the group has lately shown that what was thought to be a pillar is, in reality, the painted-out head and shoulders of the artist himself.  The broad high forehead, the hair puffed at the sides, the line of coat and collar, all are there.  Perhaps Branwell did not consider that he had done his own face justice, and in a fit of irritation smudged himself into oblivion’.

The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte was first published in 1960, and remains an accessible and fresh portrait of a shadowy – and often overshadowed – character.  Du Maurier’s non-fiction is eloquent, and is written so beautifully.  She uses lush descriptions throughout, so much so that it occasionally feels as though you are actually reading a novel.  The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte is quite slim in terms of biography; it runs to just 231 pages in the Penguin edition. The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte does follow a largely chronological structure.  Interestingly, however, the book’s initial chapter deals with his death, and then loops back to his childhood.  Through du Maurier, one really gets an understanding of Branwell’s personality, as well as learning of his hopes and fears.

The Infernal World of Branwell Bronte is extremely well set out, and is easy to read.  The chapters are all rather short, and consequently it can be dipped in and out of, or read alongside other books.  Again, du Maurier’s wrork is thorough and well plotted, and provides an insightful and rewarding look into a relatively neglected part of the Bronte quartet.

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The Book Trail: From North to East

I am beginning this particular edition of The Book Trail with a travel book I read at the end of last year, and very much enjoyed.  As ever, I have used the Goodreads ‘Readers Also Enjoyed’ tool to collate this list.

 

97818469734201. Sixty Degrees North: Around the World in Search of Home by Malachy Tallack
‘The sixtieth parallel marks a borderland between the northern and southern worlds. Wrapping itself around the lower reaches of Finland, Sweden and Norway, it crosses the tip of Greenland and the southern coast of Alaska, and slices the great expanses of Russia and Canada in half. The parallel also passes through Shetland, where Malachy Tallack has spent most of his life.  In Sixty Degrees North, Tallack travels westward, exploring the landscapes of the parallel and the ways that people have interacted with those landscapes, highlighting themes of wildness and community, isolation and engagement, exile and memory.  Sixty Degrees North is an intimate book, one that begins with the author’s loss of his father and his own troubled relationship with Shetland, and concludes with an acceptance of loss and an embrace — ultimately a love — of the place he calls home.’

 

2. Sea Room: An Island Life in the Hebrides by Adam Nicolson
‘In 1937, Adam Nicolson’s father answered a newspaper ad—“Uninhabited islands for sale. Outer Hebrides, 600 acres . . . Puffins and seals. Apply . . . ”.  In this radiant and powerful book, Adam describes, and relives, his love affair with this enchantingly beautiful property, which he inherited when he was twenty-one. As the islands grew to become the most important thing in his life, they began to offer him more than escape, giving him “sea room”—a sailing term Nicolson uses to mean “the sense of enlargement that island life can give you.”  The Shiants—the name means holy or enchanted islands—lie east of the Isle of Lewis in a treacherous sea once known as the “stream of blue men,” after the legendary water spirits who menaced sailors there. Crowned with five-hundred-foot cliffs of black basalt and surrounded by tidal rips, teeming in the summer with thousands of sea birds, they are wild, dangerous, and dramatic—with a long, haunting past. For millennia the Shiants were a haven for those seeking solitude—an eighth-century hermit, the twentieth-century novelist Compton Mackenzie—but their rich, sometimes violent history of human habitation includes much more. Since the Stone Age, families have dwelled on the islands and sailors have perished on their shores. The landscape is soaked in centuries-old tales of restless ghosts and ancient treasure, cradling the heritage of a once productive world of farmers and fishermen.  In passionate, keenly precise prose, Nicolson evokes the paradoxes of island life: cut off from the mainland yet intricately bound to it, austere yet fertile, unforgiving yet bewitchingly beautiful.  Sea Room does more than celebrate and praise this extraordinary place. It shares with us the greatest gift an island can bestow: a deep, revelatory engagement with the natural world.’

 

3. A Writer’s House in Wales by Jan Morris 61044
‘Through an exploration of her country home in Wales, acclaimed travel writer Jan Morris discovers the heart of her fascinating country and what it means to be Welsh. Trefan Morys, Morris’s home between the sea and mountains of the remote northwest corner of Wales, is the 18th-century stable block of her former family house nearby. Surrounding it are the fields and outbuildings, the mud, sheep, and cattle of a working Welsh farm.  She regards this modest building not only as a reflection of herself and her life, but also as epitomizing the small and complex country of Wales, which has defied the world for centuries to preserve its own identity. Morris brilliantly meditates on the beams and stone walls of the house, its jumbled contents, its sounds and smells, its memories and inhabitants, and finally discovers the profoundest meanings of Welshes.’

 

4. Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss (review here)
‘Novelist Sarah Moss had a childhood dream of moving to Iceland, sustained by a wild summer there when she was nineteen. In 2009, she saw an advertisement for a job at the University of Iceland and applied on a whim, despite having two young children and a comfortable life in an English cathedral city. The resulting adventure was shaped by Iceland’s economic collapse, which halved the value of her salary, by the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull and by a collection of new friends, including a poet who saw the only bombs fall on Iceland in 1943, a woman who speaks to elves and a chef who guided Sarah’s family around the intricacies of Icelandic cuisine.  Sarah was drawn to the strangeness of Icelandic landscape, and explored hillsides of boiling mud, volcanic craters and fissures, and the unsurfaced roads that link remote farms and fishing villages in the far north. She walked the coast path every night after her children were in bed, watching the northern lights and the comings and goings of migratory birds. As the weeks and months went by, the children settled in local schools and Sarah got to know her students and colleagues, she and her family learned new ways to live.’

 

1121185. This Cold Heaven: Seven Seasons in Greenland by Gretel Erlich
‘For the last decade, Gretel Ehrlich has been obsessed by an island, a terrain, a culture, and the treacherous beauty of a world that is defined by ice. In This Cold Heaven she combines the story of her travels with history and cultural anthropology to reveal a Greenland that few of us could otherwise imagine.  Ehrlich unlocks the secrets of this severe land and those who live there; a hardy people who still travel by dogsled and kayak and prefer the mystical four months a year of endless darkness to the gentler summers without night. She discovers the twenty-three words the Inuit have for ice, befriends a polar bear hunter, and comes to agree with the great Danish-Inuit explorer Knud Rasmussen that “all true wisdom is only to be found far from the dwellings of man, in great solitudes.”  This Cold Heaven is at once a thrilling adventure story and a meditation on the clarity of life at the extreme edge of the world.’

 

6. Hearing Birds Fly by Louisa Waugh
Hearing Birds Fly is Louisa Waugh’s passionately written account of her time in a remote Mongolian village. Frustrated by the increasingly bland character of the capital city of Ulan Bator, she yearned for the real Mongolia and got the chance when she was summoned by the village head to go to Tsengel far away in the west, near the Kazakh border. Her story completely transports the reader to feel the glacial cold and to see the wonders of the Seven Kings as they steadily emerge from the horizon.  Through her we sense their trials as well as their joys, rivalries and even hostilities, many of which the author shared or knew about. Her time in the village was marked by coming to terms with the harshness of climate and also by how she faced up to new feelings towards the treatment of animals, death, solitude and real loneliness, and the constant struggle to censor her reactions as an outsider. Above all, Louisa Waugh involves us with the locals’ lives in such a way that we come to know them and care for their fates.’

 

7. Finding George Orwell in Burma by Emma Larkin 79793
‘Over the years the American writer Emma Larkin has spent traveling in Burma, also known as Myanmar, she’s come to know all too well the many ways this brutal police state can be described as “Orwellian.” The life of the mind exists in a state of siege in Burma, and it long has. But Burma’s connection to George Orwell is not merely metaphorical; it is much deeper and more real. Orwell’s mother was born in Burma, at the height of the British raj, and Orwell was fundamentally shaped by his experiences in Burma as a young man working for the British Imperial Police. When Orwell died, the novel-in-progress on his desk was set in Burma. It is the place George Orwell’s work holds in Burma today, however, that most struck Emma Larkin. She was frequently told by Burmese acquaintances that Orwell did not write one book about their country – his first novel, Burmese Days – but in fact he wrote three, the “trilogy” that included Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. When Larkin quietly asked one Burmese intellectual if he knew the work of George Orwell, he stared blankly for a moment and then said, “Ah, you mean the prophet!”  In one of the most intrepid political travelogues in recent memory, Emma Larkin tells of the year she spent traveling through Burma using the life and work of George Orwell as her compass. Going from Mandalay and Rangoon to poor delta backwaters and up to the old hill-station towns in the mountains of Burma’s far north, Larkin visits the places where Orwell worked and lived, and the places his books live still. She brings to vivid life a country and a people cut off from the rest of the world, and from one another, by the ruling military junta and its vast network of spies and informers. Using Orwell enables her to show, effortlessly, the weight of the colonial experience on Burma today, the ghosts of which are invisible and everywhere. More important, she finds that the path she charts leads her to the people who have found ways to somehow resist the soul-crushing effects of life in this most cruel police state. And George Orwell’s moral clarity, hatred of injustice, and keen powers of observation serve as the author’s compass in another sense too: they are qualities she shares and they suffuse her book – the keenest and finest reckoning with life in this police state that has yet been written.’

 

8. The River’s Tale: A Year on the Mekong by Edward Gargan
‘Along the Mekong, from northern Tibet to Lijiang, from Luang Prabang to Phnom Penh to Can Lo, I moved from one world to another, among cultural islands often ignorant of each other’s presence. Yet each island, as if built on shifting sands and eroded and reshaped by a universal sea, was re-forming itself, or was being remolded, was expanding its horizons or sinking under the rising waters of a cultural global warming. It was a journey between worlds, worlds fragiley conjoined by a river both ominous and luminescent, muscular and bosomy, harsh and sensuous.  From windswept plateaus to the South China Sea, the Mekong flows for three thousand miles, snaking its way through Southeast Asia. Long fascinated with this part of the world, former New York Times correspondent Edward Gargan embarked on an ambitious exploration of the Mekong and those living within its watershed. The River’s Tale is a rare and profound book that delivers more than a correspondent’s account of a place. It is a seminal examination of the Mekong and its people, a testament to the their struggles, their defeats and their victories.’

 

Have you read any of these books?  Which are you planning to add to your TBR list?

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